April 1st marked the start of significant change in how planning will be administered in Northern Ireland.
The new 11 Councils formally begin their journey as decision makers for nearly all planning applications across the province.
Their planning committees will no longer be consulted by DoE Planning – they will decide planning applications and will do so against a backdrop of considerable change in planning law that raises requirements for applicants in how they go about the business of preparing for a planning application submission.
The rules around the planning status of certain types of development are changing to facilitate a more proportionate response from the new Councils in how they consider proposals placed before them.
That distinguishes between local, major and regionally significant development. Only the latter and potentially the more controversial of major developments will remain with a retained strategic unit within DoE Planning HQ.
Community consultation will be an integral aspect of major planning application preparation – all housing schemes of more than 50 dwellings, outside town centre retail development proposals over 1000 sq. m. and sites of more than 1 ha for all other development will need to be shared with local communities and their views sought. That will also be the case for all development which requires environmental impact assessment.
In practice the new Councils’ planning committees will be tasked with considering their professional planning officers’ advice, weighing that against public opinion and deciding whether to agree or disagree with that recommendation.
A radically new feature of the revised system is the introduction of costs in the Planning Act – catching up with established practice elsewhere in the UK.
In simple terms if a Council decides to reject its own professional advice it could find itself having to pay for all of the professional costs involved in an applicant successfully appealing that decision before the Planning Appeals Commission.
That is likely to place a sobering brake on the Councils acting unreasonably given the potential financial penalties. A key message in advance of the switchover to the new Councillors is the need for consistency in decision making and understanding the importance of both local development plan and wider strategic planning policy.
Councils will also be handed the reins and responsibility for preparing new development plans for their respective areas.
Here again there are substantial changes to the approach with 15 year development plan periods setting big picture strategic decisions (amongst them housing numbers and distribution across a Council area; town centre boundaries and retail core issues; employment land and distribution) to be debated and agreed before progressing with a stage two specific zoning review.
The eye catching headline is the ambitious target of start to finish development plans within three and a half years. That’s about 10 years faster than the previous DoE prepared plans!
All this comes at a time when developers are still finding their cash flow feet and construction steadily recovering.
It will require the shrewd to keep a weather eye on progress with the new development plans to ensure a presence to influence the important early strategic stage and then to follow up in promoting land to secure land use zonings.
It is a time of major change. Change that brings decisions back to accountable locally elected Councils.
There will inevitably be a bumpy start as the new procedures become established and a rise in planning appeals is a likely reaction.
We are ready to respond to the changes and guide our growing client base through the new requirements.